Just Visiting: What does it mean to be white in Chiang Mai?

I pass through a cloud of barbecued chicken and pull onto a side street in Chiang Mai. The parisolled street carts with their thick smells and steel vats of broth disappear. They’re replaced by big Thai-style, two-floor homes with walled yards and decorated metal gates. Across the street are row houses with wide, metal front doors, garage-style. They end before a field – weeds, gravel piles. A row of motorbikes sits outside a wooden porch.

There is a classic bicycle hung on the wall of this restaurant – cream-colored, restored. The restaurant calls itself a “vegetarian bicycle cafe” in several places, though I never hear the owner mention this. A person could order vegan pesto pasta, and the rice here is brown. I count four other foreigners and four Thai people. Three of the Thai people work here.

The cafe is the first business on the street, but it caters to foreigners. They’ve checked the boxes – wifi, a foodie aesthetic, “Trip Advisor-recommended” plaques on the walls. Pesto. Also huevos rancheros.

Chiang Mai has long been on the map for Westerners looking to make a home abroad. But there is a newer flood of resident foreigners and money, and it’s changing aspects of the city. I’m new here, and I have little insight as to how. I’m also not making a value judgment about the course of the city. But I’m part of a group that is responsible. This may already be Foreigner Small Talk 101 in Chiang Mai, but we should be talking about it.

I’m directing this essay at foreigners because I won’t speak to how Thais see the situation. I’m listening but I claim no superiority in this regard. Thais obviously have an infinitely deeper understanding (and some think it’s all pretty simple) but it’s not “on” them to walk me through our personal accountability — we showed up in their town, not the other way around. At the same time, I also don’t know how to ask.

The vegetarian bicycle cafe (VBC) sits in view of a pair of expansive apartment buildings that look about 30 years old. I can say, with no experience but near-total confidence, that there are some older white guys loving life in those expansive apartment buildings; they’re “first-wave,” if you will, these guys. They are backpackers who just never left, retirees, or teachers. Or they’re romantically involved with a Thai woman, often much younger than they are. These are our forbearers, as foreigners in Thailand.¹

Next door to the vegetarian bicycle cafe, a saw buzzes and a hammer bangs. The owner of the VBC is opening a bakery. He’s opening it as soon as possible, to pay back a loan. The Thai guys who are physically building this bakery on a Sunday don’t drink the kombucha at the cafe. Others might, but they don’t.

Local businesses and developers keep making life here cushier for foreigners, or those with more money than the average Thai – new apartments and developments, bagels, artisan pizza, Mexican food, craft beer, vegan restaurants and as many air-conditioned coffee shops as either of the Portlands. One foreigner who I met in a bar was listing places where she needed to eat before leaving Chiang Mai. None of them served Thai food. I ate at an American diner this morning. It’s not just ladyboy shows, a “Western Saloon,” hostels and McDonalds anymore. It’s everything you need for a cultural exchange.

My focus isn’t on passing judgment on VBCs or any trends. I don’t eat meat and I love to bicycle. But this particular restaurant represents a benign and totally pleasant backwater amid the flood of foreigners here.²

It’s worth talking about sex tourism, gentrification, and the rougher edges. This is the context for our incursion on the city. These deplorables³ play a role in creating a broader sense of a hedonistic playground, whether or not all foreigners treat it as such.

This idea of Chiang Mai as a bit of a playground forms the backdrop for encounters that I would call “cringes of accountability”: foreigners often avert their eyes or look down when passing one another on the street in Chiang Mai. They straighten up slightly and seem to visibly reassure themselves of something. These folks aren’t taking Thai “escorts” home with them, or pushing out Thais to erect the next Palm Springs Chiang Mai development, or getting “special” Thai massages. But it appears that they’re concerned about being held accountable for something.

They may just feel anxiety about being called to answer for who they are. This anxiety may be misplaced; there’s nothing wrong with being a “digital nomad,” or teaching English, or working at an NGO. They could feel some shame for not knowing a word of Thai. Or for choosing to live here based on the purchasing power of a foreign-currency bank account and skin. Sometimes the cringe of accountability looks like it just follows the thought, conscious or not, that other foreigners make their experience in Chiang Mai less authentic. They catch themselves and are simply judging themselves for this absurdity.

Many foreigners are also offered anonymity through their whiteness. We can take without giving, embracing our Rumi-backed transience, or whatever. For the swath of foreigners tied into the engine of foreign aid, we can clutch at a mission statement and a set of values. This isn’t a savior complex but it is about the construction of identity. I’ll be prescriptive here: when whites move abroad, we need to bring an understanding of our whiteness that goes, and continues to go, deeper than cringes.

But personal complexes shouldn’t keep us from talking through our impacts. Our imported yuppy class is a many-headed beast and a bull in a China shop – most seem aware that we’re knocking things around a bit, and that at times we’re as culturally wrong-footed as this metaphor. So I’m asking for help here – from fellow foreigners, as much as possible.

Regardless of self-consciousness, we’re collectively responsible for where this city is headed and for how we fit into the urban development equation. If someone points out how relatively affordable Chiang Mai is for them, or how good the food is, or how nice Thai women are, that can’t be the end of the conversation. Once we’re forced to or choose to overcome the cringe of initial accountability for our foreign baggage, there’s more to be said. I’d like other foreigners to help me learn. I’ll see you at “Salad Concept.”⁴


¹ As far as legacies of exploitation go, it could be uglier: I grew up on the territory of the North American Duwamish tribe and yet the history of that violence was relegated to a grade school field trip, right next to the Phoenicians and plate tectonics. That history is one of genocide, and we still manage not to touch it.

² I did not use the word “expat.” Why should I (we; those with white skin and a certain kind of privilege) get to be an expat while others are labeled migrants, immigrants or resident aliens? I’ve eschewed “Global Northerners,” though I identify as one, because it reads like an obfuscation of responsibility through PCness.

³ A moment of appreciation to HRC for blasting the field wide open, grammatically-speaking, on the use of this noun.

To those who live in Chiang Mai: I struggled to write this without mentioning “Salad Concept,” and I don’t want to be a killjoy. But really?

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